Ascended Lord, Sent Church and a Yard Sign

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Psalm 1

1 John 5:9-13

John 17:6-19

Prayer of the Day: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” John 17:18-19.

When I was in full time parish ministry, I always celebrated Ascension Day on the nearest Sunday to the day on which it fell. Liturgical purists among my colleagues objected, informing me that Ascension is not a “movable” feast and ought to be celebrated on the precise day it falls, Sunday or no. I always replied that, in a perfect world where no one works, goes to school or has qualms about driving at night, I might follow the appropriate practice. But the world does not operate with the precision of the liturgical calendar. Because I feel that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father is critical to the gospel narrative, I don’t believe I can either skip it or relegate it to a weekday service almost no one will attend. So, I told my liturgical purist friends that I would celebrate Ascension on the nearest Sunday and they, for their part, could sue me. If you are of the same mind, I invite you to revisit my post for the Sunday of June 1, 2014.  

Even if you are not inclined to abandon the lectionary order, I still believe that it is possible to speak of the Ascension and urge any preacher to do so. At first blush, that might seem an impossible task. So far from focusing on Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father, Sunday’s gospel has Jesus praying for the disciples he is about to send out into the world. Thus, whereas the Ascension story leaves us gazing into the heavens, our gospel turns the focus on the church’s being sent into the world. But appearances are deceiving. Recall that in the account from the Book of Acts, the angels chide the disciples for staring up into the clouds after the ascended Lord. Acts 1:11.That is because the right hand of God is not somewhere “away beyond the blue,” but wherever God is active-which is everywhere there is. The little band of disciples sent out into the world is the right hand of God at work.

I believe it is just here that Luke’s unique gospel perspective is important. Theologically, logically and chronologically different as it is from the narrative of John the Evangelist, Luke lifts up for us another important dimension that complements and fills out John’s witness.  It is not quite enough to say only that Jesus’ presence continues with his disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke would have us know that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father extends his presence to every corner of the universe. Whatever God does, God does in and through Jesus whether that is evident or not. The Word of God that became incarnate in Jesus remains incarnate. The Word that is Jesus is the same word by which Saint Paul tells us “all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17. God is not all in all-not yet. But we can say with assurance that there is in each historical occurrence, each human relationship, each reaction among subatomic particles a “God factor” struggling toward that end.

It is for this reason that science, the search for understanding of our planet, its place in the universe, the complex ecosystems that make up our world and the millions of creatures whose lives they support is so very important. It is for this reason Black lives, that have mattered too little historically in our nation, matter so very much at this moment in time. It is for this reason that families cannot be ripped apart, the last door to sanctuary closed or life saving food, water and shelter denied to anyone on the basis of which side of an arbitrary line drawn on a map they happen to be. It is for this reason that love, being the very glue that binds the Trinity, is not merely a human emotion among others, but the creative and redemptive power that drives the universe. It is for this reason that the full humanity of women, whose bodies bore the incarnate Lord, cannot be enslaved under patriarchal hierarchies. It is for this reason that kindness really is everything. Because the one who poured out his life in love is the hand through which God is at work in the world, the affirmations on the above yard sign are not merely matters of human opinion. They are, whether the sign maker recognized it or not, matters of divine truth.

Here is a poem by William Blake that I have shared previously. I do so again because it illustrates, I believe, the incarnate, ascended and transcendent Word that is God’s right hand.

The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Though unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake eventually came to be considered an important figure in poetry of the Romantic Age. He was born in Soho, London and attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing. Blake considered himself a committed Christian, though he did not identify with the Church of England in which he was baptized and had little use for organized religion. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake. It remained a source of inspiration throughout his life. Blake met and married Catherine Boucher in 1782. She was five years his junior and lacked formal education. Blake taught his young wife to read and write, however, and she assisted him in his artistic endeavors throughout the rest of his career. You can learn more about William Blake and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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